Internment Camps for German Civilians in Finistere, France (1914-1919)

Article excerpt

THE INTERNMENT OF foreign civilians during World War I has long remained a taboo subject. The mere mention of it would label one as a "bad Frenchman." After some witness accounts published in the period between the two world wars and some rare articles in local history journals, it was only in 1995 that the extensively documented work of Jean-Claude Farcy, The French Concentration Camps of the First World War (1914-1920), (1) began to shed some light over this overlooked aspect of World War I. (2)

The French internment policy emerged because of the progressive expansion of conflicts from the military sphere to that of the population as a whole. Since the French Revolution, a general military draft and blockades had imposed hardships upon the civilian population.

Distinctions between combatants and noncombatants blurred with the increase of franc-tireurs (the sharpshooters of 1814 and 1870), the passionarias (amazons of the chouannerie [counter-Revolution]) in 1793-1794, or Louise Michel, leader of the Commune of Paris in 1871. The First World War, a total war, called on men, women, the elderly, and even children to contribute their part to the war effort.

Not surprisingly, then, citizens of enemy states who found themselves in France when the war began would not be considered harmless but, on the contrary, potentially dangerous. They were suspected of espionage, organizing acts of sabotage, and encouraging pacifism and defeatism. A land of immigration, France hosted, on 2 August 1914, thousands of individuals from enemy nations (Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and later Ottomans and Bulgarians) and also from neutral countries (the German-speaking parts of Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden, for example) who were suspected of sympathizing with the Central Powers. Even some nationals of allied countries were considered as "suspect from a national point of view" (notably some revolutionary Russians). As early as 1913, these ipso facto suspicious individuals were expelled, placed under surveillance, or arrested for executing secret plans. Those arrested would later be deported or interned in concentration camps. Here, the French followed what was concurrently done in Germany and in other hostile nations.

This study focuses on the German nationals detained in the Finistere departement (part of the ancient province of Brittany) between 1914 and 1919 and on the roles played by both military and civil authorities--the prefecture and the underprefectures--in this process.


The "Austro-Germans" (the common term at the time) interned in the Finistere belonged to three categories that would ultimately be interchangeable in the camps:

* A small number of individuals, often including servants, leisure industry employees, and spouses of French citizens, found themselves in the departement when the war broke out. The police and gendarmerie assumed responsibility for this group from the start. The presence of important naval installations at Brest and Lorient assured the vigilance of the authorities.

* Individuals captured from ships at sea (3) or in Brittany's harbors;

* Individuals arrested in the departments of the zone des armies (near the front) in fortified towns and camps (notably Paris) and elsewhere in France.

Some had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Vacationers, businessmen, and students were rounded up in accordance with instructions from the Ministry of the Interior in September and October of 1914; they were evacuated by rail car either to "the islands, peninsulas, and the coastal establishments that were easy to monitor" located in the Great West (Normandy, Brittany, Sarthe, Vendee, Anjou) or to the south of France (Provence, Auvergne, Southwest). (4)

In all cases, the authorities sought to remove undesirables from combat zones or vulnerable military installations. "The Austro-German subjects," the Ministry of the Interior remarked, "must be housed in collective areas where they can be effectively monitored. …